Near Tobruk, Libya, North Africa · May 26, 1942

The yearlong Desert War in the wasteland of western Egypt and east­ern Libya had reached a stale­mate in May 1942, with both Allied and Axis sides licking their wounds. The fighting started four days after Benito Mus­so­lini’s Italy declared war on Great Brit­ain and France in June 1940. Egyptian-based Brit­ish forces crossed into Libya, where the Ita­lians had been a presence since 1911–1912, and captured a fort just over the border. This was followed by the Italian Tenth Army pene­trating 60 miles into Egypt and cap­turing a Bedouin camp that Sep­tem­ber. Oper­a­tion Com­pass (Decem­ber 9, 1940, to Feb­ru­ary 9, 1941), a Brit­ish Common­wealth counter­offen­sive, put an end to the adven­turous Tenth Army. Mus­so­lini’s Axis part­ner, Adolf Hitler, dis­patched the Ger­man Afrika Korps under Lt. Gen. Erwin Rom­mel to Libya to pre­vent a com­plete Ital­ian melt­down. On this date in 1942, “The Desert Fox,” Rom­mel’s nick­name in the Brit­ish media, led his Afrika Korps in assaulting the Allies’ Gazala Line east of Tob­ruk in east­ern Libya. One month later, on June 20–21, 1942, Tob­ruk was Rom­mel’s, along with 33,000 Brit­ish and Common­wealth pri­soners. Egypt and the Suez Canal—Brit­ain’s watery link to India and its South­east Asian colo­nies of Burma, Malaya, and Singa­pore—appeared up for grabs, and pas­sage to the Middle East­ern oil fields—vital to both sides—appeared open, too. Tob­ruk was the British Eight Army’s worst defeat. Not long after­wards, British Prime Minis­ter Winston Chur­chill appointed Lt. Gen. Bernard Mont­gomery to head the Eighth Army. The leader­ship change, Rom­mel’s tem­porary sick leave home, and the addi­tion of more Allied men and equip­ment (Mont­gomery would have 40 per­cent more men and nearly twice as many tanks as had the Ger­mans and Ital­ians) even­tually led to a crushing Axis defeat at the Second Battle of El Ala­mein (Octo­ber 23 to Novem­ber 4, 1942), and it marked a major turning point in the Desert War. Axis casual­ties of 37,000 amounted to over 30 per­cent of their total force. By com­par­i­son Allied casual­ties of 13,500 were a remark­ably small pro­por­tion of their total force. On Novem­ber 10, 1942, Churc­hill famously summed up the Axis defeat at El Ala­mein and its im­port on Allied for­tunes with the words, “This is not the end, it is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

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The Western Desert Campaign, June 1940–February 1943

Cyrenaica (Eastern Libya) and Western Egypt, 1941

Above: Map of Cyrenaica (Eastern Libya) and Western Egypt, 1941. The Western Desert Cam­paign, also known as the Desert War, took place in this harsh desert area lightly popu­lated with noma­dic herds­men except along the coast, where there were sev­eral forti­fied settle­ments, one being Tob­ruk with its deep, natural, and pro­tected harbor (center in map). The see­saw struggle lasted from June 1940 until early February 1943, though Axis forces had shifted into permanent retreat in mid-November 1942.

Italian POWs moving to British internment camp, January 6, 1941Afrika Korps Panzer Mk IIIs move to repel British, March 1941

Left: A column of Italian prisoners captured during Oper­ation Com­pass (Decem­ber 9, 1940, to Febru­ary 9, 1941) march to a Brit­ish army base. In two months of com­bat the British Eighth Army cap­tured nearly the whole of the Ital­ian Tenth Army, taking 130,000 pri­soners and almost 400 tanks. When Erwin Rom­mel arrived in Libya at the head of the Ger­man Afrika Korps in February 1941, the Ital­ians had just 7,000 sol­diers in Eastern Libya.

Right: A column of Panzer Mk IIIs of the Ger­man Afrika Korps moves up a desert road, March 21, 1941. On March 24 Rom­mel launched a limited offensive. By early April, after much of the Brit­ish Army in North Africa had left to sup­port Greece against Mus­s­olini’s inva­sion of that coun­try, Rom­mel retook Ben­ghazi, capi­tal of Cyre­naica (East­ern Libya), and pressed on toward Egypt, having secured all of Libya with the excep­tion of the stra­te­gically impor­tant port of Tobruk by April 15, 1941. Tobruk remained besieged from land, sea, and air until December 1941.

Rommel in command vehicle, June 1942Afrika Korps entering Tobruk, Libya, June 1942

Left: Rommel’s second offensive in Eastern Libya against Brit­ish and Common­wealth troops, nick­named “The Desert Rats,” took place in May and June 1942. Here Rom­mel can be seen on the left with his chief of staff, Gen. Fritz Bayer­lein (par­tially hidden), as the two men sur­vey the land­scape from Rom­mel’s com­mand halftrack, which he had named “Greif” (Griffin). Both adver­sa­rial armies used the west­ern desert as a testing ground in terms of organ­i­za­tion, equip­ment, and methods of waging war.

Right: On June 21, 1942, Tobruk fell to Rom­mel (per­haps seen here entering Tobruk in “Greif”). Tob­ruk remained in Axis hands until Novem­ber 11, 1942, when Lt. Gen. Bernard Mont­gomery’s Eighth Army retook it after the Second Battle of El Ala­mein (Octo­ber 23 to Novem­ber 11, 1942). El Ala­mein revived the morale of the Brit­ish, being the first major offen­sive against the Ger­mans since the start of the Euro­pean war in 1939 in which the West had achieved a deci­sive victory. Tob­ruk remained in Allied hands there­after. In May 1943 the rem­nants of the Axis forces sur­ren­dered to the Allies from their enclave in Tunisia.

Generals at War: Rommel vs. Montgomery and the Second Battle of El Alamein, 1942